How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

byMortimer J. Adler
Rating 8 /10 Readability
Read Time 13 hrs Readible On
Published: 1972Read: February 26, 2014Pages: 426
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by Juvoni Beckford@juvoni

When you read a book, it's like you're having a conversation in your mind with the author. Sometimes it can be difficult to comprehend fully what the author is trying to communicate. How to Read a Book, by Adler and Van Doren is a timeless classic on reading comprehension. This is a very practical book that systemically breaks down strategies for reading different types of books as well as approaches for getting to the author's objective. Read this book if you want to get more quality out of the books you read.

Motivations to Read

As funny as it sounds, I knew that I needed to find a book on how to read a book. The amount of books I read per year has been steadily increasing. Reading more doesn't necessarily mean that I comprehend more. I needed to learn how to read more actively and how to navigate through different kinds of books.

3 Reasons to Read

-Become a more intelligent reader -Learn the different reading styles: Elementary reading, Inspectional reading, Analytical reading, Syntopical reading -Get better at reading seemingly difficult books, so you can expand your knowledge even further

Notable Quotes

“True freedom is impossible without a mind made free by discipline.” Mortimer J. Adler

“....a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable, books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.” Mortimer J. Adler

“The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.” Mortimer J. Adler

“A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging. The undemanding reader fails to satisfy this requirement, probably even more than he fails to analyze and interpret. He not only makes no effort to understand; he also dismisses a book simply by putting it aside and forgetting it. Worse than faintly praising it, he damns it by giving it no critical consideration whatever.” Mortimer J. Adler

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading Notes & Summary

The primary goal of the book is to make books teach us well.

Reading a book is a kind of conversation with the author.

There is a distinction between reading for information and reading for understanding.

The author defines the art of reading as follows:

The process whereby a mind, with nothing to operate on but the symbols of the readable matter, and with no help from outside, elevates itself by the power of its own operations.

Reading can be used in different contexts:

Reading to increase our store of information, as in reading newspapers, magazines, blogs, or other categories that we already have some context and understanding around. This form of reading requires less mental energy, it is communication between equals, information-wise.

Then there is reading something you do not completely understanding, where the writers aim is to increase the reader's understanding, often in non-fiction writing. This form requires more mental energy.

Reading for understanding takes place when:

  • There is initial inequality in understanding
  • The reader must be able to overcome this inequality in some degree.

We learn from our "betters".

A book that can be read for understanding or information can probably be read for entertainment as well.

However, it is not true that every book that can be read for entertainment can also be read for understanding.

If you wise to read good, read for understanding.

To be informed is to know of something.

To be enlightened is to know of something and to know why it is the case and what its connections are with other facts and it's inverse relationships.

Being informed is a prerequisite in being enlightened. In reading you should know what the author said and what he means and why he says it.

Montaigne speaks of "an abecedarian ignorance and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it"


  1. The ignorance of those who don't know their ABC's and therefore can't read
  2. The ignorance of those who have misread many books.

Those who have read widely, but not well enough and may have more information but no more understanding.

Fun fact: The greeks used to refer to these people as Sophomores.

The Four Levels of Reading

  1. Elementary Reading One learns the the foundations of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading and acquires initial reading skills.
  2. Inspectional Reading The aim at this level is to get the most out of a book within a period of time usually a period smaller than is needed to get substantial amounts out of a book.
  3. Analytical Reading A thorough and complete reading of a book. More difficult than the prior two levels. Analytical Reading is necessary for the sake of understanding and not necessarily required for solely informational reading.
  4. Synoptical Reading The reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. With Synoptical reading, the reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books.

Three Historical Trends In Promoting Reading

  1. The United States efforts to educate all of it's citizens, a goal for universal literacy.
  2. The reading method hadn't changed significantly since the late 1870s in Greek and Roman schools. In America, a move was made for synthetic reading teaching the ABC's first, and focusing on sound to build mastery of the language. Germany took a different approach after the 1840s, with the analytical method, teaching the visual recognition of whole words before the focus on letter-names and sounds.The visual method was the silent method as opposed to the oral method and became popular in the early 1920s, where emphasis on rapid comprehension was more important.
  3. It has been traditional for American's to criticize schools, specifically the reading instructions that are taught. This heavy criticism has drawn the attention of a number of researchers, who developed multiple better approaches for reading.

One useful finding of recent research is the analysis of stages in learning to read.

Four Stages of Learning to Read

  1. Reading Readiness: The multiple areas of preparation for learning to read. Psychical readiness, good vision and hearing. Intellectual readiness, mental and visual ability to take in letters, words and combine them. Language readiness, ability to speak clearly and use sentences in correct order. Personal readiness, ability to focus, follow directions and collaborate.
  2. Reading Simple Materials: Learning the use of word, the use of context or meaning clues and the begging sounds of words.
  3. Reading Vocabulary: Rapid progress in vocabulary building, and ability to derive meaning from unfamiliar words through context clues. Ability to read for different purposes and across multiple genres and categories.
  4. Reading Skill refinement and Enhancement: Building on the reading skills previously acquired. Can assimilate reading experiences, take learnings from one concept and carry it over to the next as well as compare the views of different writers.

These stages of Elementary Reading are usually guided by a teacher, who can smooth out the rough patches in the learning process.

In higher levels of education, there is little structure in place to instruct higher levels of reading beyond elementary level, it is usually assumed the student possesses it on some level upon admission.

Inspectional reading is a true level of reading. You cannot read on the inspectional level unless you can read effectively on the elementary level.

The Two Kinds of Inspectional Reading

  1. Systematic Skimming or Pre-reading

Usually happens if you don't know if you want to read a book. Unsure if it will require deeper analytical reading or if you have limited time to read the book.

Then you decide to Skim the book or pre-read it which is the fist sub-level of inspectional reading. You discover if the book is worth your time, or requires more careful reading.

Some habits of skimming:

  1. Look at the title page and, if the book has one, at it's preface. Notice the subtitles and try to figure out the scope of the book and where the author will take their special angle on the subject.
  2. Study the table of contents to obtain a general sense of the book's structure; use it as you would a road map before a trip.
  3. Check the Index if the book has one and make a quick estimate of the range of topics covered, and the sources the author references.
  4. Read the Publisher's Blurb(usually within the book jacket or back), which other try to summarize the main points in the book. At this point your should have enough high level information on the book to determine if you want to read it, or if it needs deeper reading
  5. Identify Key Chapters that would be pivotal to the author's arguments.
  6. Skim Through to book and reading random pages in sequence or finding epilogue pages usually near the end of certain chapters where the author summarizes the chapter or other main points.

Think of yourself as a detective looking for clues to a book's general theme or idea.

  1. Superficial Reading

When we come across a book that is difficult to read in that we come across a number of things we don't understand, we often think that it was a mistake to read it in the first place.

However, it may be that we were expecting too much from the first going over of a difficult book.

In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the thinks you do not understand right away.

Pay attention to what you can understand and do not be stopped by what you cannot immediately grasp.

When we take too much time or focus too much on parts we don't understand, to get a dictionary, review footnotes or other reference sources prematurely, we impede our reading instead of helping it.

In your effort to master the fine points, you will miss the big points. Continue reading through and things will make more sense and when you've made progress you can fill in the missing gaps.

On Reading Speeds

A good speed reading course should teach you how to read at many different speeds, being able to vary your rate of reading in accordance with the nature and complexity of the material.

Some passages you should read slowly through, to enable better comprehension and some passages are not that complex and you should read much faster through those.

The goal is to build awareness of when a particular speed is appropriate.

Things that slow down reading speed

Subvocalization: People continue to sub-vocalize, that is to repeat words in their head. The mind, does not need to "read", which the eyes does, it can grasp a sentence or even a paragraph at a glance.

Eye Fixations: Films of eye movements, show that the eyes of young or untrained readers "fixate" as many as five or six times in the course of each line that is read. Sometimes there eyes return to phrases or sentences previously read.

Advice to reduce eye fixation: Place your thumb and first two fingers together. Sweep this "pointer" across a line of type, a little faster than it is comfortable for your eyes to move. Keep up with your hand and incrementally increase the speed at which your hands move.

The good reader reads actively, with concentration.

Speed-reading courses often do not improve reading comprehension.

Analytical Reading is a necessary component for reading for comprehension.

Read Speed Rule

Every book should be read no more slowly than it deserves, and no more quickly than you can read it with satisfaction and comprehension.

To use a good book as a sedative to make yourself fall asleep is a major disservice to yourself.

Ask questions while you read-questions that you yourself must try to answer in the course of reading

The Essence of Active Reading:

The Four Basic Questions a Reader Asks

  1. What is the book about as a whole? Discover the leading theme and essential sub-themes or topics of the book.
  2. What is being said in detail, and how? Discover the main ideas, assertions, and arguments that constitute the author's particular message.
  3. Is the book true, in whole or part? To answer this, you must answer the prior questions. You must know what is being said, before you can know if it is true. Afterwards, you must make up your own mind to judge the authors view.
  4. What of it? If the book has given you information, you must find out it's significance. Why does the author emphasis partial points and is it important for you to know them. It the information has enlightened you, you should ask what comes afterwards.

How to make a book your own

Why you buy a book, full ownership occurs when you make a book a part of yourself, and that is by writing in it.

Why is marking a book indispensable to reading it?

  1. It keeps you awake and engaged.
  2. Active reading, leads to thoughts, which when writing teaches you how to better express your thoughts and shows if you understand the content.
  3. Writing down your reactions helps you remember the thoughts of the author.

Reading a book should be a conversation between you and the author.

Types of Markings

  1. Underling - of major points; of important or forceful statements.
  2. Vertical Lines at the margin - to emphasize a statement already underlined or to point to a passage too long to be underline.
  3. Star, Asterisk, or other symbols in the margin - to empathize the ten or dozen most important statements or passages in the book.
  4. Numbers in the margin - to indicate a sequence of points made by the author in developing an argument.
  5. Numbers of other pages in the margin - to indicate other places in the book where the author makes similar or contradictory points. Link together key arguments. Some use "Cf" symbol, meaning "compare" or "refer to."
  6. Circling of key words or phrases - Similar uses to underlining.
  7. Writing in the margin, top, or bottom of the page - record questions, or answers to certain passages. To reduce complex statements or passages to simple ones. To record the sequence of major points through the book.

The Three Kinds of Note-making

Structural Note-making: Contains notes to these questions that concern the structure of the book. What kind of book is it? What is it about as a whole? What is the structural order of the work whereby the author develops his conception or understanding of what general subject matter?

Conceptual Note-making: Notes about insights into the author's idea about his subject matter. The truth and significance of the authors statements and concepts and how your understanding is deepened or broadened.

Dialectical Note-Making: When you've read multiple books synoptically and make notes on the shape of the discussion that is engaged by the authors.

Forming the Habit of Reading

Any art or skill is possessed by those who have formed the habit of operating according to its rules.

Knowing the rules of an art is not the same as having the habit.

In the skiing example, the author explains how skiing is a very humiliating experience for an adult to go through, as it feels like learning how to walk all over again. There are endless falls, crossed skis and tumbles. Even the best instructor can have a slow time with a student, and although they communicate a ton of rules like keep your back straight, knees bent, but still lean forward, weight on the downhill ski, it's not in your best interest to think of all the rules while your in the act.

You must learn to forget the separate acts in order to perform all of them, and indeed any of them, well.

But in order to forget them as separate acts, you have to learn them first as separate acts.

It is hard to learn to read well. Not only is reading, especially analytical reading, a very complex activity, it is a challenging mental activity.

Mental activities are harder to train, and became solid patterns, than physical activities.

The Third Level of Reading: Analytical Reading

Rule 1: You must know what kind of book you are reading, and you should know this as early in the process as possible, preferably before you begin to read.

Rule 2: State the unity of the whole book in a single sentence, or at most a few sentences.

Rule 3: Set forth the major parts of the book, and show how these are organized into a whole by being ordered to one another and to the unity of the whole

Rule 4: Find out what the author's problems were.

Rule 5: Find the important words and through them come to terms with the author.

Rule 6: Mark the most important sentences in a book and discover the propositions they contain.

Rule 7: Locate or construct the basic arguments in the book by finding them in the connection of sentences.

Rule 8. Find out what the author's solutions are.

Rule 9: You must be able to say, with reasonable certainty, "I understand," before you can say any one of the following things: "I agree" or "I disagree", or "I suspend judgment".

Rule 10: When you disagree, do so reasonable, and not disputatiously or contentiously.

When you ask people about the book the supposedly, just read it's hard to get a consistent response on the core of the book's message.

One reason why titles and prefaces are ignored by many readers is that they don't think it's important to classify the book they are reading.

It's hard to get the meaning of the book from it's title.

An expository book is one that consists primarily of opinions, theories, hypothesis or speculations, for which the claim is made more or less explicitly that they are true in some sense.

Intelligent action depends on knowledge.

Theoretical books teach you that something is the case. Practical books teach you how to do something you want to do or think you should do.

The traditional subdivision of theoretical books classifies them as history, science, and philosophy.

The essence of history is narration. History is chronotopic. Chronos is the Greek word for time, topos the Greek word for place.

History is knowledge of particular events or things that not only existed in the past but also underwent a series of changes in the course of time.

In Science, Scientists seek laws or generalizations. It is more concerned with how things happen for the most part or in every case.

Philosophy is like science and unlike history in that it seeks general truths rather than an account of particular events, either in the near or distant past. A philosophy book appeals to no facts or observations that lie outside the experience of the ordinary man.

The Reciprocal Arts of Reading and Writing

The reader tries to uncover the skeleton that the book conceals. The author starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones.

A good piece of writing should have unity, clarity and coherence.

If the writing has unity, we must find it. If the writing has clarity and coherence, we must appreciate it by finding the distinction and the order of the parts.

The First Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book is about

  1. Classify the book according to kind and subject matter.
  2. State what the whole book is about with the utmost brevity.
  3. Enumerate its major parts in their order and relation, and outline these parts as you have outlined the whole.
  4. Define the problem or problems the author is trying to solve.


One word can be the vehicle for many terms, and one term can be expressed by many words.

Discover the meaning of a word you do not understand by using the meanings of all the other words in the context that you do understand.

Determine an Author's Message

A proposition in a book is a declaration, and expressed the author's judgments about something they believe to be true or false.

From the author's point of view, the important sentences are the ones that express the judgments on which his argument rests.

Some clues to important passages:

  1. Passages that spark wonder and make you feel perplexed and know it.
  2. Important words and terms.
  3. They are usually in the premises or conclusions of a passage.

A good book usually summarizes itself as its arguments develop.

The Second Stage of Analytical Reading, or Rules for Finding What a Book Says

  1. Come to terms with the author by interpreting his key words.
  2. Grasp the author's leading proposition by dealing with his most important sentences.
  3. Know the author's arguments, by finding them in, or constructing them out of, sequences of sentences.
  4. Determine which of his problems the author has solved, and which he has not; and as to the latter, decide which the author knew he had failed to solve.

A good book deserves an active reading. The activity of reading does not stop with the work of understanding what a book says. It must be completed by the work of criticism, the work of judging.

"Read not to contradict and confute; not to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weight and consider." - Bacon

To criticize a book fairly:

  1. Complete the task of understanding before rushing in.
  2. Don't be disputatious or contentious.
  3. View disagreements about matters of knowledge as being generally remediable.

Agreeing or Disagreeing with an author

  1. We are animals with a rational and irrational nature, we should acknowledge the emotions we bring into a dispute. You may think you have reasons, when in some cases all you have are strong feelings.
  2. Communicate your assumptions. The person you are arguing with may be arguing on different assumptions.
  3. An attempt at impartiality is a good antidote for the blindness that is almost inevitable in partisanship.

These three conditions will help make and intelligent and profitable conversation.

When the reader says "I understand but I disagree", they are making either of the following remarks to the author.

  1. "You are uninformed." To say that an author is uninformed is to say that he lacks some piece of knowledge that is relevant to the problem he is trying to solve.
  2. "You are misinformed." To say that an author is misinformed is to say that he asserts what is not the case.
  3. "You are illogical - your reasoning is not cogent." To say that an author is illogical is to say that he has committed a fallacy in reasoning.
  4. "Your analysis is incomplete." To say that an author's analysis is incomplete is to say that he has not solved all the problems he started with, or that he has not made as good a use of his materials as possible, that he did not see all their implications and ramifications, or that he has failed to make distinctions that are relevant to his undertaking.

"The great writers have always been great readers, but that does not mean that they read all the books that, in their day, were listed as the indispensable ones. In many cases, they read fewer books than are now required in most colleges, but what they did read, they read well. Because they had mastered these books, they became peers with their authors. They were entitled to becomes authorities in their own right."

"In the natural course of events, a good student frequently becomes a teacher, and so, too, a good read becomes an author."

Troubles in Reading Great Books

We can get more out of great books, by first learning how to read better which this book teaching and finding the books that are prerequisites to the one you want to read.

Other Books as Extrinsic Aids to Reading

"The great authors were great readers, and one way to understand them is to read the books they read."


"To join this conversation, we must read the great books in relation to one another, and in an order that somehow respects chronology."

How to Use Reference Books

  • First, have a good idea of what you want to know. If you don't know what you're looking for searching through a reference books is an even more difficult task.
  • Second, you must know where to find out what you want to know. You must know what kind of question you are asking, and which kinds of reference books answer that kind of question.
  • Third, you must know how the particular work is organized. Learn how the editor of the book has organized the information and how you can use it.

How Not to Read Imaginative Literature

"Don't try to resist the effect that a work of imaginative literature has on you."

"We learn from experience - the experience that we have in the course of our daily lives. So, too, we can learn from vicarious, or artistically created, experiences that fiction produces in our imagination.


Expository works do not provide us with novel experiences. They comment on such experiences as we already have or can get. That is why it seems right to say that expository books teach primarily, while imaginative books teach only derivatively, by creating experiences from which we can learn. In order to learn from such books, we have to do our own thinking about experiences; in order to learn from scientists and philosophers, we must first try to understand the thinking they have done."

General Rules for Reading Imaginative Literature

  • You must classify a work of imaginative literature according to its kind.
  • You must grasp the unity of the whole work.
  • You must not only reduce the whole to its simplest unity, but you must also discover how that whole is constructed out of all its parts.
  • The elements of fiction are its episodes and incidents, its characters, and their thoughts, speeches, feelings, and actions.
  • Terms are connected in propositions. The elements of fiction are connected by the total scene or background against which they stand out in relief.
  • If there is any motion in an expository book, it is movement of the argument, a logical transition from evidences and reasons to the conclusions they support.

How To Read History

"The first is: if you can, read more than one history of an event or period that interests you. The second is: read a history not only to learn what really happened at a particular time and place in the past, but also to learn the way men act in all times and places, especially now."

Questions to ask yourself when reading current events

  1. What does the author what to prove?
  2. Whom does he want to convince?
  3. What special knowledge does he assume?
  4. What special language does he use?
  5. Does he really know what he is talking about?

On Science

"Most modern scientists do not care what lay readers think, and so they do not even try to reach them. Today, science tends to be written by experts for experts."

On Philosophy

"But we do want you to recognize that one of the most remarkable things about the great philosophical books is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask. The ability to retain the child's view of the world, with at the same time a mature understanding of what it means to retain it, is extremely rare - and a person who has these qualities is likely to be able to contribute something really important to our thinking."

The Fourth Level Of Reading: Synoptical Reading

"The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list."

Doing this will give you a clear idea of the subject which will help when you subsequently read some of the books analytically.

Some books you will discover can be read faster than others.

Some books you will have a better understanding of whether it says something important about the subject or not.

The Synoptical Reader tries to look at all sides and to take no sides.

The Paradox of Synoptical Reading: "Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read synoptically, but unless you can read synoptically, you do not know what to read."

You have to know where to start to read synoptically.

The Five Steps in Synoptical Reading

  1. Finding the Relevant Passages. "In synoptical reading, it is you and your concerns that are primarily served, not the books that you read." In this sense, you don't have to necessarily read the whole book, you aim is to find the passages that are relevant to you.
  2. Bringing the authors to terms. If you've read multiple authors, they may use different words and terms to describe similar things. "Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around. [..] What it really comes down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his." "Synoptical reading, in short, is to large extent an exercise in translation."
  3. Getting the Questions Clear. "Questions must be stated in such a way and in such an order that they help us to solve the problem we started with, but they also must be framed in such a way that all or most of our authors can be interpreted as giving answers to them."
  4. "Defining The Issues." "An issue is truly joined when two authors who understand a question in the same way answer it in contrary or contradictory ways.[..] The task of the synoptical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as may be."
  5. "Analyzing The Discussion" We have to do more than just asking and answering question. "We have to ask them in a certain order, and be able to defend that order; we must show how the questions are answered differently and try to say why; and we must be able to point to the texts in the books examined that support our classification of answers. Only when we have done all of this can we claim to have analyzed the discussion of our problem. And only then can we claim to have understood it."

"If you are reading in order to become a better reader, you cannot read just any book or article."

"You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity. You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mend. And unless you stretch, you will not learn."

"There is a strange fact about the human mind, a fact that differentiates the mind sharply from the body. The body is limited in ways that the mind is not. One sign of this is that the body does not continue indefinitely to grow in strength and develop in skill and grace. [..] But there is no limit to the amount of growth and development that the mind can sustain. [..] The mind can atrophy, like the muscles, if it is not used."

posted May 27, 2015

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